måndag 28 februari 2011

My t-shirts, part 29: Krazy Kat

Swearing in church department: I never was much of a Krazy Kat fan.

I'm sorry, but there it is.

söndag 27 februari 2011

So I watched "Tangled"

It's good. In fact, to a large part it's very good, although there are some weaknesses.

First of all, it takes a while before it starts getting interesting; it takes too long setting up the story. This could have been fixed by having better songs for the first couple of musical numbers featuring first Rapunzel and then Rapunzel and her evil "mother" – or somewhat stronger performances of them.

These are very much Alan Menken songs – when I heard them I thought immediately of Beauty and the Beast but had to wait until the credits to have it confirmed that it was indeed Menken who'd written the score – so they're of course competent, but Rapunzel's song about her longings is very much the sort of song you'd see in any musical, and it's unfortunately rather bland, without any special hooks to catch the listener. Unless it's sung by a very special voice, it becomes mainly exposition – the images accompanying it are good, but not strong enough to carry the number by themselves.

The number where the evil "mom" Gothel undermines poor Rapunzel by telling her how weak she is and how evil the world is is better, but I sat there wishing for more of a Scar quality to Gothel's performance – I think some controlled over-the-top evil à la Jeremy Irons would have made this song strong enough to stand on its own, instead of just being another musical number.

But then come the strengths. The story is strong and complex; the Disney story men have really done their job on this one. There is drama, and plenty of it, with several conflicts going on at once – unlike the horrible overlong TV special Chicken Little, this really is worthy of a feature film and capable gripping and moving the viewer. There are strong characters, great sight gags, a clever plot device to symbolize Rapunzel's longings that carries the film forward and adds emotional poignancy to it, and an intelligent way for her to discover who she really is without resorting to simplistic tricks or deus ex machina. And the animation is just gorgeous.

Textures, body language and movement, slapstick gags, 3-D – they're all marvelous. The film simply looks great (well, except for the character designer making the women's eyes way too large, unbalancing their faces; that failed). Best of all is... the horse.

Maximus is the horse of the captain of the king's guard, and he's determined to catch the thief he starts the film hunting – Flynn Rider, the movie's hero. Maximus has a fantastic range of expressions, and he goes through them at a rapid-but-not-too-rapid clip that is a joy to behold. Whoever animated him did an outstanding job, and although he isn't one of the lead characters, he takes away any scene that he's in – almost like Thumper.

Considering that I've even seen some idiotic faux-"feminist" complaint that Mulan was anti-woman – because of the law that made it a crime for a woman to join the army, and because Mulan's soldier training made her strong (to quote the great Dave Barry: I am not making this up) – I expect there will somewhere be somebody who'll claim that Tangled is anti-woman because Gothel is an evil controlling mother. Don't listen to that person, or anybody else who's trying to convince you that you shouldn't watch this wonderful film, because they are not your friends.

This may be computer animation and 3-D instead of classical animation, but it's nevertheless classical Disney. Recommended.

fredag 25 februari 2011

Roger Älmberg: Då världen höll andan. Kubakrisen 1962 ("When the world held its breath. The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962")

Finished Roger Älmberg's "Då världen höll andan. Kubakrisen 1962", which depicts the events leading up to the famous crisis and details how it was ultimately resolved. 

The Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, being ticked off at the presence of US/NATO nuclear missiles in Turkey, on the Soviet Union's back yard, and decides to place some nuclear missiles in America's back yard, the newly-communist island of Cuba. This would offset the US superiority when it came to strategic missiles, and be a great coup, he felt. The Cuban government, under constant threat and subjected to espionage and sabotage by the US, welcomed Soviet missiles and bases.

The Soviet leadership had gotten the impression of President Kennedy that he wasn't a particularly strong leader who would accept the fact of the missiles once they were revealed. He and his brother Robert, his Attorney General, had also been a little bit too confident that they could play the backchannels game with the Soviets to make the sort of deals necessary to keep everything running smoothly along, and seems to have gotten played by the Russian intel officer they used as an intermediary.

Anyway, when the bases were practically finished, the US discovered them, thanks in part to information from a highly positioned spy (later arrested and executed by the Russians) on how those bases would look. Now starts the Cuban Missile Crisis. Contacting the Russians, the Americans are fed a series of lies that these are just defensive military installations, and start deliberating at the highest government and military levels what to do about the unacceptable presence of nuclear weapons on Cuba.

Several – including the highest military men – want to go to air attacks followed by an invasion. Gradually, an alternative coalesces, where in order to gain time for negotiations and a solution that doesn't include going to a war that might end up encompassing Europe (where the situation of Berlin is still rather precarious, being an island of democracy in a sea of communism and still a very contentious issue) and perhaps even America itself the President and his councilors decide to instead of immediately attacking, bringing the problem to the attention of the world – in order to gain the sympathies of the rest of the world – and puts Cuba into "quarantine", or more correctly stated, enacts a blockade of the island. Any ships carrying missiles and such to the island is to be turned back. Meanwhile, a frantic search for solutions and information about what the other part is up to is started on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

Khrushchev soon realizes that he's bitten off more than he can chew, and his initial goals, putting nuclear weapons on USA's doorstep, is rapidly abandoned for an attempt to get those pesky missiles in Turkey out, and to save face. By now, he knows that those missiles are basically obsolete, but he'll take what he can get. Meanwhile, the Americans know that they're obsolete as well, and have planned to remove them, but can't do so now as it'll look like they gave in to extortion...

The book then basically depicts the debates in the group of advisors created by President Kennedy, the decision processes within the Soviet leadership, and the diplomatic back-and-forth that would, in the end, resolve the conflict. It also offers a Swedish perspective on the crisis, giving some details about how the Swedish government reasoned and responded as well as on what a Soviet spy in the Swedish military, Colonel Stig Wennerström, did to earn his keep.

The Swedish track isn't entirely uninteresting, but it dilutes the narrative and is ultimately not successful. However, the diplomatic efforts to create a suitable response to the American blockade of Cuba. The Swedish government couldn't condone it, because that would set a precedent that the Soviet Union could use to exploit in the Baltic Sea, but at the same time, they didn't want to openly criticize the US.

Anyway, the story of the Cuban crisis is an informative one, on how you can avoid war, but that you need to a) actually want to avoid it, b) work to create the space and time to negotiate a deal that staves off war. While I don't think Älmberg quite manages to capture the nail-biting tension of those October days, that may be because I've been spoiled in that department by films like Thirteen Days and The Missiles of October (I was just a kid when I saw the Missiles of October, and it made a very strong impression on me), so I'll say that this is still worth reading. But if you're interested in the decision-making process, I really recommend the transcripts of the deliberations within Kennedy's inner circle. Now that was quite fascinating reading!

In summary, not-quite riveting, but worth the read.

onsdag 23 februari 2011

Storytelling 8: Symbolism and mystification

Under deadline pressure (funny how that builds up when you're sick), so just a quickie look at a classic: the guy hanging on for dear life to branch that is the only thing keeping him from a steep fall.

Here, the father in "Zits!" is in a very precarious situation, so we have a mystification – how the heck did mild-mannered, sedate Walter wind up in that position? (We also get the added thrill of a familiar comics situation; Sarge winds up hanging from that branch at very regular intervals, so how is the "Zits!" team going to resolve it?)

Turns out he's not in that position at all, it's used to symbolize him being overwhelmed – in this case by groceries – and not getting any help from Jeremy, who's engrossed in something and wearing earphones preventing him from hearing the father's pleas for help. A nice depiction of a not-too-uncommon occurrence in many households – the parent's feelings of abandonment are nicely overdramatized for comic effect, but not to the point where it loses the recognition humor. I wouldn't be surprised if this strip went up on many fridges all over the world.

tisdag 22 februari 2011


I've deplored the state of Swedish satire earlier this month, so I won't rehash that debate again. Instead, I'll give an example of How It's Done: Malvina Reynolds, sung by Raymond Crooke. Clever lyrics set to a catchy tune and voilà: Instant classic.

Keep in mind that this was written in, what, 1961?, when the US was blowing rapidly increasing amounts of money and international goodwill up in Vietnam.

fredag 18 februari 2011

Alison Bechdel: Fun Home. A Tragi-Comic

Alison Bechdel has reaped accolades left and right for "Fun Home". Well, I'll have to place myself in the less-than-auspicious company of those who disagree.

This is an autobiographical work about Bechdel growing up in the shadow of an emotionally distant, literature-reading, stickler-for-aesthetics, secretly-gay father. It's what seems a remarkably love-poor home she shares with the rest of the family; in fact, it seems downright impoverished on emotions. Comparing Bechtel's story to my own childhood, it's more or less like all emotionally charged episodes of people actually relating to each other have been edited out, if they ever even existed. The father is forever refurbishing the house – somewhat akin to what he does with the dead in his part-time job as an undertaker – or shutting himself away in a book, and his emotional austerity even seems to have affected the way Bechtel is telling her story.

And that is what ultimately make this story not for me. Bechtel's own emotionally detached storytelling, wherein she mainly just depicts a scene and then comments upon it in an almost clinical tone of voice, leaves me, in the end (and somewhat ironically), cold.

The story starts out strong, with more and more of the secrets behind the façade being first hinted at and then more and more exposed, depicting episodes building up the tension and pressure of the story – including Bechtel's own sexuality (she's a lesbian) becoming also more and more obvious and part also of the story.  But somewhere halfway through, she loses me. The narrative isn't really building to any climax or revelation – we already know just about everything we're going to learn about her relationship with her father and her sexuality, so it becomes mainly repetition of things that we have already been basically told, and there is also no real resolution to her relation to her father. Basically, her time at college becomes a bit of a "and then this happened, and then this happened, and then..." narrative.

There are a number of literary allusions used, and I've seen them mentioned in reviews as an example of the quality of the story, but to me they don't really offer all that much; they're not sufficiently advanced or original to really deepen the depiction Bechtel's situation and relationship to her father to make me a fan.

As already pointed out, I seem to be in the definitive minority on this book, so I'm perfectly happy if you prefer to check out "Fun Home" for yourself (and who knows, perhaps you'll find the somewhat detached storytelling a feature instead of a bug like I did) but I doubt I'll be returning to it. Give me Li Österberg's work any day.

torsdag 17 februari 2011

Thursday is obviously Budget Day

...because I'm posting a little reminder from Matthew Yglesias as well:

One of the ironies of Washington is that the people who spend the most time talking about the budget deficit often have very little practical understanding of it. One example comes from my friend Dave Weigel’s interview with Delaware Senator Chris Coons, who’s positioning himself as a leading budget hawk:

“The framework that was laid out by the deficit commission, while I don’t agree with everything they did, shows the direction I think we need to go in terms of scope,” said Coons. “If we simply look at the 12 percent of the budget that’s non-discretionary spending, we’re never going to get there. I think we need to be doing the large work.” (...)

“Why do you think 3 percent of GDP is a sustainable deficit?” asked Coons.“Don’t we need to get to a balanced budget, in order to get to the point where we’re tackling the debt?”

The answer is that, no, you actually don’t need to get to a balanced budget in order to tackle the debt. The country’s debt is becoming less burdensome, which is to say any time GDP is growing faster than the debt. If debt growth is zero (balanced budget) or negative (surplus) that usually means fairly rapid debt-shrinkage. But given positive economic growth, modest budget deficits are completely consistent with reductions in the debt burden.

This is another thing that is good to keep in mind when listening to the budget peacocks talking about how the little people need to sacrifice in order to balance the budget (because raising taxes on people who can afford to pay them will supposedly wreck the economy entirely).

The invaluable Brad DeLong on the US's budgetary woes

Brad DeLong, national and international treasure:

Figure A-1 from the CBO's 2010 Long-Term Budget Outlook shows that America has a large short-term deficit now: we are still in a deep downturn, and as a result revenues are temporarily below trend and spending is temporarily above trend.

This also shows that, as the CBO projects in its current-law extended baseline, when the economy recovers revenues will rise and spending will decline, and from 2015 on the revenue line matches the total primary spending line.

Now our current deficit is not a problem: running a deficit during an economic downturn is healthy and appropriate. Our short-term deficit problem is that our deficit is not large enough given that if congress simply goes on autopilot the revenue and primary spending lines are likely to cross by themselves in four years.

And our long term projected spending and revenue balance is not a problem. There is no imbalance. Or, rather, there is no imbalance if. If the economy and if programs perform as expected, if the U.S. government continues to be able to finance its debt at a real interest rate less than the growth of labor productivity plus the labor force, and if congress and the president do not do anything further to raise spending above or decrease taxes below current law, the United States simply does not have a fundamental fiscal crisis.

The problems are all in the ifs. If people fear that there will be a fiscal crisis they could demand an interest rate premium for rolling over U.S. government debt, and then we would we have a non-fundamental fiscal crisis. Could we have one? Yes: the East Asian economies had one in 1997-1998. Had foreign investors not panic and fled, there would have been no problem. Those foreign investors who did not panic did well. Those who bailed themselves in at the bottom of the crisis did extremely well. But that was no consolation to the East Asian governments that faced the crisis, or to the East Asian workers rendered unemployed by the consequences of the crisis.

However, today there are no signs of any possibility of a collapse of foreign investor confidence in their U.S. Treasury holdings. A non-fundamental crisis is not even a cloud on the horizon.

But there are the other ifs.

The big if is, to put it simply, this: congress will pass something stupid and the president will sign. Congress might never come up with payfors for its recurrent AMT patches. Congress might remove the revenue raising parts of the Affordable Care Act. Congress might remove the cost saving parts of the Affordable Care Act. The Supreme Court might decide, just for the hell of it, to rule that the cost saving parts of the Affordable Care Act are unconstitutional. Congress might pass a big unfunded tax-cut just for the hell of it. Congress might pass a big unfunded spending increase just for the hell of it.

All of these ifs are very real worries.

But none of them can be fixed by legislative action now.

No congress now can cement up the exits to keep some future congress from doing something really stupid.

And dinking around with cuts to non-security discretionary spending right now doesn't do anything to help.

What is the solution to our long-run deficit problem? It is simply this: elect honorable and intelligent women and men to Congress. Elect representatives who will not pass unfunded tax cuts--as the Republicans did in 2001. Elect representatives who will not pass unfunded spending increases--as the Republicans did in 2003. Elect presidents who will promise at the start of their turns to veto legislative acts that do not meet long run paygo requirements. Choose supreme court justices who will not prostitute their high office for the short term political benefit of the party they happen to belong to--as the Republican justices did after the 2000 election.

Gee. I guess our long run fiscal problem is really dire and insoluble.

Seeing as how dependent we in the rest of the world are on a US that is functioning well, let's all hope real hard that the saner heads prevail in the struggle for power in the US that is still ongoing, and likely to do so for several more years. 

onsdag 16 februari 2011

Sven-Bertil Bärnarp: Medelålders plus ("Middle aged-plus")

There is a phenomenon known as "recognition humor", wherein the humor of a joke (gag, skit etc.) lies not so much in the wittiness or inventiveness of the joke as in the fact that the reader (viewer, listener etc.) recognizes the situation, mood or characters of the joke from his or her own experience. Several comic strips have been based on this; for example, many of the early American newspaper strips went for the family setting for that very reason, and the successful Scott - Kirkman collaboration, "Baby Blues" started out very much in the "something for all new parents to recognize themselves in"vein even if the characters would later develop individual characters that would elevate the strip beyond that (much like Scott & Borgman's "Zits" or any other really good strip IMO).

Anyway, "Medelålders Plus" is about a man who suddenly realizes that he's retired, not just middle-aged, and his crosswords-solving and flowers-growing wife. They're a happy couple, not making any big waves and rather happy about that, vaguely worried about encroaching old age but not particularly anxiety-ridden. In short, ordinary people.

And ordinary people seem to like the strip. A lot. Me, I don't know how ordinary I am (but not being particularly extraordinary, I suppose I am, at that), and while neither "middle-aged-plus" nor in a happy, stable relationship with a crosswords-solving and flowers-growing wife, I do know and have known a few people who remind me quite a bit about the couple in the strip – relatives, and friends of my parents. So there is still some element of recognition there for me. It's not quite enough to make me a fan of the strip, but it is enough for me to understand why many people are.

For me, the strips can be sorted into three categories: laugh-out funny, amusing, and those that just sort of pass by. The laugh-out funny ones aren't all that frequent, but after a lifetime of reading comics, not many are. Still, there's something very funny about a recent retiree standing by his window annoyedly looking out at some workers digging a hole in the street obsessing about their low productivity, yelling advice and exhortations that they can't possibly hear, and in the final panel having to go lie down a while because he's become all stressed out. Similarly, it is amusing to read about the social interplay and relations that develop around the recycling center, where people regularly meet who otherwise wouldn't even know the others existed. Etc.

I'm not all that big on recognition humor myself, so "Medelålders Plus" isn't quite my cup of tea – those laugh-out loud strips don't come often enough for me – but it's a likable, low-key strip that gives voice to a demographic that certainly isn't particularly well represented in either comics, movies or the news, so more power to it for that.

Article in Swedish about the strip here; samples (also in Swedish) here.

måndag 14 februari 2011

I did this!

Mike Davis: Buda's Wagon. A Brief History of the Car Bomb

Question: So what does one read when laid low by a stomach flu? Answer: Nothing that requires any effort.

Mike Davis's car bomb history is a rapid-clip exposé of the car bomb's use starting with anarchist Mario Buda's explosives-laden horse-drawn wagon that caused devastation on Wall Street in 1920. The weapon's history ranges from Zionist terrorists attacking the British in Palestine, the US retaliating against Middle Eastern terrorists, various religiously and/or politically motivated attacks on US and Israeli people and buildings, Tamil Tigers, the Italian Mafia attacking judges and art museums, cocaine barons, the IRA, the frightening amount of car bombs in Iraq, etc. 

This was a useful read since I didn't actually know how wide-spread the practice of car bombings has actually been, nor that for instance the far-right French terrorist organization the OAS had used them so extensively, so that's a plus. Or the reference to political scientist Robert Pape's work – showing that most suicide bombers aren't so much socially maladjusted mental cases as reacting to what they see as a collective injustice, especially a feeling of anger at a foreign occupation.

However, there are minuses as well. First, Davis's politics shine through a bit much. If there are any entities whose violence is never acceptable, it's the US and Israel. For example, the Basque separatists ETA's use of bombing campaigns gets a "well, they were persecuted by Franco and the so-called 'socialist' government that replaced him", but when Israel and the US does something bad, the notion that perhaps they, too, were provoked doesn't seem to exist. (For the record, I don't think "we were provoked" is much of a defense for the indefensible, I'm just pointing out that Prof. Davis seems to have an ever-so-slight double standard.)

Another problem is that Davis relies very much on secondary sources and journalism (and in one more amusing instance, taxi drivers) for his facts, and some of those facts are even of the "some say" variety. That does not inspire confidence. Finally, the language is a bit on the lurid side – with plenty of descriptions of the slabs of meat and blown-off limbs that result from bombings. I can understand the wish to depict the horrors of the bombings, but it gets repetitive after a while, and it doesn't help that the Swedish translation I read isn't all that well made. Not only are some military-style terms translated in a manner that I find less than perfect, various English idiomatic expressions are translated literally and the language just doesn't flow very well in Swedish. It's a bit hard to understand why the Swedish Arts Council considered this book so good that it is worthy of their "quality-based" grants.

Anyway, not really recommended, but not a waste of time as you can still learn something from it.

söndag 13 februari 2011

My t-shirts, part 27: Woodstock/Joe Cool

Question: So what does one blog about when laid low by a stomach flu – or, as the somewhat more descriptive Swedish name for it goes, "vinterkräksjuka" ("winter-vomiting-disease")? Answer: Nothing that requires any effort.

lördag 12 februari 2011

Yukiko Duke: Breven från Iwo Jima ("The letters from Iwo Jima")

Finished Yukiko Duke's "Breven från Iwo Jima" ("The letters from Iwo Jima"), which tells the story of the preparation for battle, and subsequent battle, on Iwo Jima from the perspective of the Japanese soldiers. The book uses the letters from the military commander, Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, to his family as its "hook", and hangs upon that hook not only the larger story of the defense of the island against US invasion, but a biography of Kuribayashi and a general history of Japan's war in the Pacific.

Kuribayashi is described in rather positive terms. Unlike standard Japanese commanders of the time, he is said to have been not just empathic commander who cared deeply about his subordinates, but also unwilling to waste their lives in useless Banzai charges. Instead, he concentrated his effort on building up not only a massive defense system of tunnels and protected positions in depth to slow the American attack down, but also on building up the competence and confidence of his men, until he had a strong, tightly-knit fighting force that fought on despite the horrible conditions of the battle and a tremendous disparity in resources. This was done under some opposition from his subordinate commanders at the island, as it wasn't in accordance with Japanese doctrine, which concentrated on trying to stop the invasion at the beach. Kuribayashi realized, however, that with the tremendous amount of firepower the Americans would be able to direct at such positions, they'd be overwhelmed in very short order.

And I have to admit, not only is it interesting to see how Kuribayashi went about shaping the defense of the island, it is also worthwhile to read his biography-within-the-book and see not mainly what shaped the man, but perhaps more what sort of world it was that he encountered during his career not just in Japan, but also overseas in the U.S. (as deputy military attaché) and Canada (as military attaché).

There are also chapters on the political history behind Japan's opening to the West in the 1800s (forced to do so by American warships), the Meiji Restoration, and the drift from liberalization and democratization in the early 1900s towards militarization and war, with military interventions in Siberia, Manchuria, Korea and China and Indochina, and on the consequences of the war for the defeated Japan. And it's there somewhere that Duke loses me a little, but more on that in a minute.

As I said, the book is, at least initially, built around the letters the Lieutenant General wrote to his family, mainly his wife, from Iwo Jima. Those letters are interesting in themselves; the General discusses his own probable death there, the unbearable conditions with hordes of vicious insects and American bombers harassing them at night, making it impossible to get a full night's sleep, and the heat – not just from the sun, but from the volcanic island itself, making in some spots impossible for the men to keep digging in the same place for a longer period of time, because it melts their rubber sandals – but she shouldn't worry, because he's fine. He also issues exhortations to his son to get a grip and make something of himself, to his little daughter to make sure she wears enough clothes so that she doesn't catch a cold, and to his wife to stop sending him food and to for God's sake get the hell out of Tokyo with the family while she can, because once Iwo Jima falls, the Americans are going to make an airfield out of it and bomb Tokyo into a burnt-out ruin.

The "for God's sake get the hell" part isn't actually in the very polite letters, but I do get a clear impression that's what he's actually thinking. (At least it is what I'm thinking, since he tells her that from the start and she never seems to get it.) The book doesn't go into detail on what the General did while stationed on the Asian mainland, unfortunately.

But back to where Duke loses me a bit: her depiction of how Japan was provoked and more or less, it seems, forced into war. She tells her readers about how Japan felt insulted when the Western powers wouldn't let it make territorial gains from WWI, how it felt they conspired to keep it from taking its rightful place in the sun, how they prevented her from territorial gains in China while taking their own chunks of land quite happily, etc. In other words, Japan felt the Western imperialist powers were hypocrites for not letting it do what they had already done.

Duke also blames Chiang Kai-Shek for escalating the Marco Polo Bridge incident into the Second Sino-Japanese War by holding a provocative speech, which seems to go very lightly on the responsibility of the Japanese government. Overall, she seems to go one step too far in her attempts to mitigate the responsibility of Japan for the outbreak of war in the Pacific. Even if the US and England may well have given Japan far less space for imperial expansion than Japan might have wanted, I can't see that as an in any way sufficient reason for annexing Korea, invading Manchuria, and generally making a bloody nuisance of itself. Europe is responsible for its own imperialistic behavior towards Asia, Africa, and... well, everybody, and I think a similar attitude must be taken towards Japanese imperialistic ambitions. The intense suffering of the Japanese people during and immediately after WWII does not justify taking responsibility away from the Japanese leaders for their decisions.

Duke's criticism of U.S. policies also falls into similar territory for me; the discrimination and prejudice against Japanese-Americans is highly deserving of criticism, but t doesn't in any way justify militaristic, expansionistic Japanese policies. (And, while I'm on this subject: as long as Japanese soldiers keep fighting and killing American soldiers, there is no reason for those American soldiers to not keep trying to find and capture or kill those Japanese soldiers. Duke calls that "a systematic hunt for the survivors", but it's not. It's called "war", where as long as somebody is trying to kill you, you're perfectly within your rights to try to stop him from killing you, including by killing him as well.)

Apart from that aspect – which doesn't dominate the book – I think this is a worthwhile read; Duke writes a very readable prose. And when you've finished the book, you can see the Clint Eastwood movie, which is excellent.

(Here is a review by an actual historian and not a mere dilettante such as myself.)

tisdag 8 februari 2011

Tommy Möller: Mellan ljusblå och mörkblå ("Between light-blue and dark-blue")

Finished Tommy Möller's "Mellan ljusblå och mörkblå. Gunnar Heckscher som högerledare", a biography of the political scientist who became the leader of the Swedish conservative party 1961-1965, after its setback in the 1960 election.

Heckscher joined the conservative party in the thirties despite rather liberal leanings, because he couldn't accept the weak defense policies the liberal party shared with the Social Democrats. He worked against the nationalist streaks that were popping up in those days, arguing that a sound nationalism would not denigrate others, but instead serve as a foundation from which to become a true cosmopolite. After a disastrous election in 1960 – the party lost 4 percent points when they'd instead had hopes of defeating the Social Democrats and taking over government together with the other non-socialist parties – Heckscher was tapped to replace the previous party leader, the charismatic Jarl Hjalmarsson.

Heckscher stepped right into somewhat of a hornet's nest. Not only was the party reeling from the electoral setback, it was also in the midst of an ideological conflict. There were the less strictly conservative "light-blues", who wanted a closer relationship to the centrist parties, the farmers' party and the liberal party, and the more hard-liner "dark-blues". Heckscher would have problems with both factions – he would work hard to get closer ties with the centrist parties, including making concessions resented by the dark-blues, but the results were insufficient to satisfy the light-blues (hence the title of the book).

Heckscher seems to have been a bit before his time in Swedish politics: he was a warm friend of European cooperation and the EEC; he was very much pro-ownership society, which has to some extent been realized with mutual funds and such, leading to a lot of working Swedes having stock ownership (currently, if you have a full-time job, you're usually reasonably well provided for; it's people without full-time employment that have the hardest time); he was very much for encouraging people working, which is also very much current policy; and he was also a warm friend of the non-socialist parties collaborating closely to take over government power from the Social Democrats, which is precisely what has happened – in no small part because the current conservative party, Moderaterna, under Fredrik Rheinfeldt has toned down the dark-blue aspects of their policies and ideology, making them a much more palatable choice for a large segment of the Swedish electorate than they used to be.

Another difficulty that Heckscher had was, according to Möller, that he was very much an intellectual, trying to see the valuable aspects of one's opponents' ideas, reasoning with a lot of "on the one hand – on the other hand" instead of drawing up very clear ideological lines. Me, I'm not sure I buy that argument entirely, as that doesn't come through in Möller's storyline as a major reason for Heckscher's problems IMO. I'm perfectly content with an intellectual politician doing "on the one hand, this and this is reasonable from party X, but on the other, they're coupling it with that and that, which we just can't accept" – I just don't think an intellectual approach is incompatible with ideological clarity at all.

Also, a major cause of Heckscher's downfall also seems to have been him being more or less stabbed in the back by his closest co-worker within the party, party secretary Yngve Holmberg (who would go on to become the next party leader).

This is a good book. It's not only a biography of Heckscher, it's also a brief history of political issues that shaped not only the sixties but also to a not-insignificant extent today's political landscape – Möller is himself a professor of political science and of course knows this stuff. Möller writes a good prose that makes his book an easy read, and a very worthwhile one. My main criticism would be that he takes the conservative perspective somewhat uncritically; criticisms of Social Democratic politicians are taken more or less at face value, and no real attempt is made to look at what their motivations were.

Anyway, recommended. If you're a politically interested Swede, this is well worth your time.

måndag 7 februari 2011

Back from the comics store, February edition

Continuing with building up my John Stanley library, another Nicolas de Crécy opus, starting a Dork Tower archive, some this and that and a couple of solid superhero efforts, and volume two of the big "Prince Valiant" edition from Fantagraphics – to be honest, I'm only a middling fan of "Prince Valiant", but it's a truly well-made classic that you really should have read.

Now let's see, maybe I can move some war games out of the way to make room for more comics...

söndag 6 februari 2011

Morvan, Bessadi & Trannoy: Zorn & Dirna #1 & #2

Imagine a world where an aging king out of fear for Death prepared a large number of traps and, after a heroic battle lasting several days, finally managed to trap her in a large mirror – a world where now ordinary humans don't die, but merely age and eventually start to rot. A world where the only solution to this is to transport people who've outlived their "best before" date are taken to a giant death factory, where their head is separated from the body. This is the only, grisly, way of releasing the soul, and said soul then unfortunately then takes up residence in the body of the person who did the deed.

If you don't want to imagine such a nasty world, you're in luck; you don't have to. Jean-David Morvan and Yann Legal have already done that for you. Then, Morvan scripted the BD ("bande-dessiné", that is "comics" in French) album series about Zorn & Dirna, two kids growing up orphaned in this terrible world. They've been brought up and trained by the king's man, Master Erken, under whose tutelage they've learned how to, really and truly, kill. When they simultaneously touch somebody, human or animal, and concentrate, they can kill that person, releasing the soul without it taking up residence in either of them.

If you think that is somewhat creepy, you'll have to be prepared for worse, because at least one of the kids really likes her awesome power, and wants to use it for fun. Also, being kids, they don't have quite the self-discipline not to use that power when they get really angry with somebody...

Complicating things is an extremely ruthless, ronin-type bountyhunter who is supposed to escort the kids to the king. Turns out not only has he issues of his own to deal with, horrible enough to explain how he became the near-monster he is painted as in the first album, he is also not entirely successful in his mission; instead, the kids end up in the very death factory they're supposed to make superfluous.There, they end up under the axe of the man who severed their mother's head from her body...

The back story to this album series is powerful, if somewhat grisly and ugly. It's also disturbing to see a kid's glee at her power to kill, and the bloody business of killing (and some other distasteful stuff) is perhaps depicted a tad enthusiastically. And the coloring, especially in the first album but also to some extent in the second, is done in an often rather insensitive, flat manner, even when the colorist is trying to "paint", and sometimes even drowns out the line artwork – a cardinal sin. It gets better in the second album, but I'm still not happy with it. It might be a problem with the Swedish printing, or it might be that the coloring is done on computer and looks different there (where the light comes from behind the colored art, and isn't reflected from it), but either way, it's not really satisfactory. (Take out your old Tintin albums to see an excellent example of how one does coloring that really supports the storytelling instead of overpowering it.)

But the good things about this series are stronger than the mainly minor complaints I have. The artwork is a bit on the cartoony side (somewhat compensated for by the coloring though, despite my reservations about it), the characters are strong, the back story (as I've already said) powerful, and the storyline is – once it gets really going in the second album – not merely interesting but quite fascinating. (And in the second album, the translator also handles the difference between the French "vous" – the plural or respectful "you" – better in the first, so there are improvements in all respect – story, writing, color, translation.)

The setting, this world where Death has disappeared, strikes me as something that could have been created by some of the more imaginative sfi-fi writers of the fifties-sixties golden age, like Philip José Farmer for example. These days, with the rise of the fantasy genre, it becomes a fantasy story instead, and one that is well worth reading. 

Recommended. You want to judge the look of the story for yourselves, you can find samples from the Swedish editions here.

lördag 5 februari 2011

The darker side of Astrid Lindgren

This clip's in Swedish, so it's useless to you international viewers, but it's a strong relationship drama by Astrid Lindgren and I'm sorry that it never became a full-fledged movie.

Roy Zimmerman

Roy Zimmerman is a brilliant satirist who is probably best compared to Tom Lehrer – scathing yet extremely funny. I think a lot of Swedish (and other) "satirists" would do well to study at his feet for a while; it's not hard to get laughs and adulation from people whose prejudices you cater to, but it's not-quite the same thing as being genuinely funny – for that you need to actually be clever.

The first song, "Chickenhawk", is about those enthusiastic war lovers who were positively rabid about invading Iraq – but who never were quite enthusiastic enough about risking their own hide to actually join the armed forces themselves. Hence, "chickenhawks", a combination of "chicken" and "hawk" (obviously).

Doesn't he look like the sweetest guy in the world?

The second clip deals with the homophobia that's rampant in certain circles. Note how he, unlike this very well-made and funny Swedish effort, doesn't rely on generalizing swipes at large religious groups but mainly attacks an attitude.

Anyway, it's not exactly easy to find his records here in Sweden, but if your record store isn't able or willing to get them for you, you can always buy them online.

fredag 4 februari 2011

My t-shirts, part 26: Justice League of America

I'm not a big fan of the "Fethering? We don't need no dirty fethering!" style of superhero art that's so common nowadays, but at least the design of this shirt is cool.

torsdag 3 februari 2011

Storytelling 7: Mystification

Back to looking at storytelling techniques again. This time, an example of "mystification" from the excellent "Zits" by Jim Borgman and Jerry Scott.

I call this technique "mystification", because it presents the reader with a riddle, a mystification, and the gag is the explanation in the final panel for this apparently inexplicable behavior or situation.

In this case, Jeremy returns home – in panel #1, we see him slamming the door of his car, giving us the valuable information that he has just arrived wherever he has just arrived. In panel #2, we see his mother sitting on the chimney, which informs us that he has apparently arrived home. We also see them exchanging normal son-mother greetings – "Hi mom.", "Hello Jeremy" – so apparently Jeremy's mom sitting on the chimney isn't particularly weird to either of them. Why on Earth is that so?

We have our mystification, and in the final panel, we get the answer: Jeremy's friend Pierce is visiting, and he can't find his snake. He has even, as he tells Jeremy, asked Jeremy's mother if she's seen it.

Now we see why the strip had to have that initial panel of Jeremy arriving home. It was necessary to have Jeremy just arriving to the house, otherwise he would have known that Pierce hadn't found his snake yet. And it was necessary for him to ask Pierce about that, because that is what prompted Pierce to divulge that he had asked Jeremy's mother – which is what resolved the mystification for the reader!

Borgman and Scott well and truly know their craft. I doff my hat in their general direction.

Daniel Gustavsson: Serier på biblioteket ("Comics in the library")

Librarian and blogger Daniel Gustavsson has written a book about how and why to present comics in the library, and which comics that should be. The intended audience for the book is first of all librarians, but it is also suitable as an introduction to comics for, well, for just about anybody.

About half of it is theoretical, first introducing the comics medium to those who aren't used to reading comics, then presenting different comics genres and giving brief histories of the comics medium in the U.S., Europe and Asia (mainly Japan, of course), a bit on how to treat comics in the library (including about buying comics in foreign languages) and a couple of pages explaining various terms, especially terms dealing with Japanese comics genres. Not-quite half the book is recommendations for libraries on high-quality comics collections that would be suitable to buy (and not just for libraries but for aspiring comics aficionados as well), some good books about comics, and a couple of informative web sites.

Even though the already-knowledgeable comics reader can probably learn something from the theoretical parts and also get some tips on good comics they might not be aware of, it's as an easy-to-read, knowledgeable introduction to the comics medium this book shines. The writing is crisp and informative, and the what-to-read advice is generally good. Well worth reading for the Swedish-speakers out there who want/need to learn more about comics.

The rest of you, get Brian Walker's two-volume comics history instead. It's great, and it's coming out in a collected edition this year.

onsdag 2 februari 2011

Adrian Tomine: Shortcomings

Adrian Tomine's graphic novel "Shortcomings" depicts the miserable life of misanthropic young cinema manager Ben Tanaka. He has a nice girlfriend, a job, and an unpleasant manner that's going to wreck his life.

The story starts with Ben attending a movie festival that his girlfriend Miko has been part of putting together, sitting next to her and snorting derisively at the movies shown. Naturally, this ticks her off, and an argument ensues. Ben is simply unable to keep quite about things that he's dissatisfied with, and he's also unable to express his dissatisfaction in a constructive manner. It's possible that he simply doesn't know how, but my impression is more that he simply doesn't care to put in the effort.

Ben's only friend is Alice, a lesbian working her way through all the girls she can at the school where she is slowly failing to finish her Ph. D., a degree she seems to be mainly pursuing to please her family (and in vain, as it turns out). She puts up with Ben's abrasive personality because she's a tough girl who seems to enjoy the somewhat rough back-and-forth between them, and she's not shy about pointing out Ben's shortcomings.

It's pretty obvious from the start that Ben's and Miko's relationship is on the rocks, not just because they have problems communicating, but also because Ben apparently has a fascination for white women (the three main characters are all Asian-American) which, when enacted in the form of watching all-white lesbian porn, hurts Miko and makes her feel insecure. Things come to a head when Miko gets an internship in New York, and moves there for a couple of months. Ben now feels free to act out his wish to date and have sex with white girls, but as he's not really all that socially competent, he has problems succeeding with that, and when he finally manages to start  a relationship, his abrasiveness and pettiness ruins that as well.

Alice gives up on her degree, and goes to New York, Ben tagging along to find Miko – who is more or less all that he has left. Of course, things don't exactly go well, but I won't go into detail; better that you read it for yourself.

This is an excellent book. Tomine depicts relationships powerfully and realistically, is very good at characterization, and has a great ear for dialogue. The artwork is crisp and clean, not exactly elegant but still nice-looking and quite appropriate for the stories he tells.

I am especially impressed with how he depicts the character of Ben, his insecurities and inability to relate to others in a positive, non-egotistical manner. He really is a jerk, but he doesn't become entirely unsympathetic  in at least this reader's eyes. The insecurities behind so much of his behavior, and his own realization of his shortcomings coupled with his inability to get to grips with them, shows a vulnerability that elicits at least my sympathies – after all, who among us haven't made mistakes similar to those Ben makes (even if not to the same, rather extreme, degree as he)?

(I also can't help but note the similarity with the work of Swedish comics artist Li Österberg, both for the clean drawing style and for the excellent, realistic dialogues and characterization – both in her own comics and those done in collaboration with Patrik Rochling.)

Anyway, warmly recommended, and a joy to read – if not exactly a joy to read, if you know what I mean.

tisdag 1 februari 2011

What is wrong with these people? Part 2: Cal Thomas edition

Cal Thomas:

The history of radical Islamist movements is being repeated in our time. First there is infiltration and when their numbers are large enough, domination. Next comes subjugation, followed by eradication of nonbelievers. To think things will be different this time is folly. (...)

In her book, "Londonistan," Melanie Phillips writes, "we have long contracted our understanding of the extremists to the extremists." She means that instead of pursuing a policy to defeat radical Islamists, we have welcomed them among us. They are at the Department of Justice and Homeland Security, giving "sensitivity training" to people who are supposed to be protecting us from them. They are in prisons, organizing the disaffected into "hate America" cadres. They are military chaplains and in polling organizations, shaping the way questions are asked and manipulating results to further their interests. (...)

If Egypt falls -- immediately, or ultimately -- to the Muslim Brotherhood, it will embolden other fanatical revolutions throughout the region and world. Then they'll come after the big prizes: Europe, which is almost gone, and America, which still has time to save itself, if it will climb out of denial which, as the joke goes, is not just a river in Egypt. (...)

Rep. Peter King (R-NY) will soon hold hearings on the radicalization of Muslim communities in the U.S. Will he probe deeply enough? Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers will try to prevent him from doing so.


Good grief.

Back from the comics shop, part 3

I think I'll have to hold off any more big shopping sprees for a while now. The regular monthly installments will have to do.

I mean, good grief – "Dazzler"? The epitome of all that went wrong with Marvel in those days?